This is a somewhat typical Philip K. Dick novel, albeit not quite as good as I expected.
PDK is mostly famous for the movies that have been made from hThis is a somewhat typical Philip K. Dick novel, albeit not quite as good as I expected.
PDK is mostly famous for the movies that have been made from his novels. His books are a bit obscure, even among many Science Fiction fans, and for a good reason: he's not a very good storyteller.
Now, scifi fans are frequently a tolerant bunch. Among them are fans that will tolerate abysmal writing because the author nails the science (typically physics). Others couldn't care less about hard science, but want to see interesting projections of the technology our grandchildren will get to play with (or be oppressed by).
But PDK doesn't do well at the visionary technology thing: this book was written in 1974, and he had folks who were fifty years old and had been genetically bred to be superior humans; he had nuclear weapons the size of sesame seeds that could be secretly planted on people and detonated remotely to assassinate them; he had rocket cars and interplanetary travel... but he also was still using phonograph records because the story was set in 1988!
He doesn't do stories too well, either. This one had some pretty glaring holes in the plot once you spend a few minutes pondering everything.
And even with all that, it simply wasn't well thought out. His protagonist is desperately trying to solve the puzzle his life has become, and it turns out a character not even introduced until two-thirds into the book is responsible. Had PDK gone to a writing workshop or handed his story to a writing coach, they probably would have told him he was crazy.
But, frankly, those that enjoy him will overlook all of this, because one doesn't read PDK for plot coherence, visionary futurism or character development. He has this quirk in his brain that lets him spin out freakishly interesting puzzles of an existential nature.
The movie folks love him because they can grab this central nugget of bizarreness, "re-imagine" his characters, completely re-write the dialog, and get — hopefully — a conceptually fascinating film. A film version of Flow My Tears is in development; see here. Long after his death, PDK remains very popular in Hollywood, with over seven films in development or production.
But he simply doesn't tell his stories well, so I doubt I'd ever give him five stars. And Flow My Tears suffers because the protagonist's existential crisis is philosophically less interesting than I've come to expect. Sure, there's a crisis, but it isn't philosophical or psychological, and only existential in a superficial manner.
The guy really is hard to pin down. Very minor spoilers follow.
At one extreme he delves into deep philosophical questions that resonate; but sometimes his questions are quite fanciful and artificial. For example, in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, the underlying question is who we are if everyone around us suddenly forgets our existence. Here in Ubik, the conundrum is even more bizarre, and involves extranormal powers (e.g., telepathy) and a very curious form of time travel.
The author's characteristic exuberantly bizarre extrapolation of technological and social trends can be an annoying distraction in his more serious work, but here it becomes a kind of carnival show and rollercoaster ride of hilarious anachronism. Just trying to visualize what the characters are described as wearing will make your jaw drop and, perhaps, head ache. Ponder the possibility of semi-autonomous coin-operated appliances that insult their nominal owner when the latter is too impecunious to make coffee, or front doors that refuse to open until back wages are paid.
Given that PDK is definitely a bit of an acquired and eccentric taste, a corollary is that those who enjoy him are likely to get a kick out of pretty much anything he wrote. I think this particular work is near the less-worthwhile end of his spectrum, but I'm still quite glad I read it....more
I can't really claim I read this novel—pretty soon, skimming became the more appropriate verb. It was simply too dense for reasons I didn't find interI can't really claim I read this novel—pretty soon, skimming became the more appropriate verb. It was simply too dense for reasons I didn't find interesting. I'm all for thoughtful exposition, but there was a lot of philosophizing on topics that made me skip too many pages, especially on theological matters. As Wikipedia tells it,
The Brothers Karamazov is a passionate philosophical novel that explores deep into the ethical debates of God, free will and morality. It is a spiritual drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, reason and modern Russia.
The characters are as dismal and dysfunctional as any in Chekov's plays, but talk and whine much, much, much more. One of the dictates I've heard of from novel writing is the admonishment is "show, don't tell", and this is a very tell-y book.
I suspect if someone is open to the philosophy admixed into the text, then this could become a very important revelation in the reader's life. This would be especially true if the ideas were fresh and new, but they really aren't to many of us. Even then, to someone with more patience than I had it might still be a quite interesting story. ...more
Of all of these classic social studies, the one that seemed most prescient was The Lonely Crowd, with the discussion of social identification shifting from “inner-directed” to “other-directed”. The radicals and revolutions starting in the sixties seemed to belie Riesman’s thesis, but the trend again became apparent by the early eighties.
If I recall correctly, the definition was that inner-directed people judged themselves and acted in accordance to an internalized “compass”, moral and otherwise. An other-directed person, meanwhile, based their morality and identity on their social group.
A further implication that Riesman identified was the concurrent trend from a production-oriented society (“I am what I produce”) to one oriented towards consumption (“I am what I consume”).
Importantly, both of these trends are very apparent in the ‘net generation’, and the rise of the internet seems to be accelerating both the shift to other-directedness and social identification aligned with consumption. I don’t recall much discussion in the 1969 book of the long term implications of these trends, but they could be deep tectonic shifts in the nature of civilization, as profound as the shift from the days of a pre-industrial society based mostly on agricultural production.
(It is quite possible that I have forgotten essential details of this book’s message, or even fundamentally misunderstood them — in which case I hope someone will post a comment to my review alerting me to my mistake).
I hope to find time to re-read the Revised Edition and see if the Foreword, at least, has much to say about current evidence for these trends, but a browse of the book (via Amazon Reader’s preview) doesn’t show much commentary.
The Lonely Crowd is definitely relevant to our twentieth-century world, but so much of the subject matter, style and examples are antiquated that most people will find the book’s lessons difficult and obscure.
The shift to a “other-directed” mindset could be the underlying cause of much of this. As I remember Riesman’s thesis, the basis of this is the shift from an economy of production to one of consumption. As we get farther from an economy of scarcity, more people focus their attention away from “how to make and get stuff” and towards their social status. This isn’t a crude “keeping up with the Joneses” thing; its more like what the well-fed monkeys do: they study the more popular monkeys and spend more time grooming monkeys they think are cool and interesting (that is, “friending” them).
The problem with this happening in humans is that the worry over production concentrates us on the material world and its consequent attention to science and engineering. A shift to a consumption mindset could derail the very thing that made it possible, as people’s votes, purchases and career choices change. And the many crises facing humanity in the coming decades make this an especially inopportune time for such a transformation.
I was perusing the New York Times and concurrently reading about sociology, and so I idly searched for Riesman at nytimes.com and discovered two essays, one of them excellent. The first, The Last Sociologist, is an obituary written by a protege and explains how the field of sociology has, in its struggle to be treated as a “real” science, focused on quantifiable phenomena and in doing so lost its ability to be relevant to any non-academic's intellectual life (much as Economics is boring whereas the neglected field of Political Economy is fascinating).
The second essay, How Our Crowd Got Lonely was written just a few years before Riesman died and examines how important The Lonely Crowed was at the time, albeit harder to understand by more recent generations, since they have been raised completely within a world of "outer-directedness" and have trouble percieving how fundamentally different the world might be to someone with an "inner-directed" mind.
I will add: Ambler is the grandfather of the psychological espionage novel, according to no less thFor a deeper examination, I recommend Ron's review.
I will add: Ambler is the grandfather of the psychological espionage novel, according to no less than Alan Furst, the current grand-master of the genre. As noted in most reviews here, A Coffin for Dimitrios isn't actually an espionage novel, but a detective novel. But the detective isn't working for or with the police, and explores the underworld intrigues of international criminals, so has more in common with espionage than a romans policiers. It should also be noted that this is definitely not an action-packed thriller -- is has little to do with Ludlum (although Ludlum acknowledges to his inheritance with The Ambler Warning) and absolutely nothing to do with Clancy; his novels are character driven and psychological, Furst by way of le Carré.